Friday, 24 January 2014

A Churlish Piece of France

Pozieres, France, October 3, 2013
I have decided to occasionally add a "Photo of the Day" to my blog to spice it up a little and perhaps throw a cloak of excitement which may otherwise not exist, over my life in an effort to make my blog, and in turn my existence, seem more exciting than it actually is.

 So, to begin this new phase in my literary career I am including a photo of myself at one of the most famous and bloodiest places in Australian history. Pozieres, France.

 Those who regularly read my blog and people who know me well would remember that Linda and I took a trip to the continent in September and October last year. We spent a week in London before departing on a whirlwind Trafalgar tour which we jumped off in Paris. We spent four days in the city of light before finding ourselves in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France. The Somme in fact.

 Invading armies, marauding bands and assorted Kings, Dictators, Emperors and Despots have passed through this region in the last two millennia and the Somme River and it's surrounding countryside were famous long before the bloody conflagration known as The Great War, latterly, World War One, and it's accompanying devastation rolled through the area in the second decade of the 20th century.

 My Great Uncle, a young fellow by the name of John Flinders Robinson was serving in the Australian Imperial Force on the Somme in 1917 when he suffered gunshot wounds at a little village called Lagnicourt and was transported to a Casualty Clearing Station at Grevillers to the west where he died on April 23. He was buried in the cemetery at Grevillers where he remains to this day. He was 20 years old. He brought me to northern France.                                                                                                                                    
L/Cpl JF Robinson

  I was not originally intending to spend time looking at war memorials and gazing back a century on the pointless destruction inflicted on this part of the world but as I had researched my Great Uncle and learned of his presence in this world, my family was very keen that I visit his grave. As far as we know, no one from the family had ever visited it to pay our respects and let the young fellow know that he had never been forgotten.

 Researching papers from the Australian War Memorial and family tradition had made it clear that this young man was much loved and sadly missed and although I never knew my Great Grandparents or John Robinson's siblings, it was clear that his loss had creased their lives like a tracer bullet and he remained in their hearts and thoughts forever more. A snapshot of the tragedy that overtook too many families in Australia from 1915 to 1918.

 Escaping the madness and bustle of Paris after picking up our hire car, Linda and I miraculously found ourselves on the correct motorway out of the metropolis and before we knew it we were speeding towards the old Western Front and our date with family history.

 It was an easy date to keep. 

 The road from Paris to our eventual destination in Calais runs right through the heart of the battlefields of the Great War and we soon found ourselves, like a generation of Australians a century before, on the Somme and the names which I once had learned from reading history books were bright and clear on road signs as they hustled by as we tried to keep pace with the other commuters in their slick and shiny Audis and Beamers. Our little KIA hire car paled into insignificance alongside the cavalcade of riches which sped around us on the Motorway.

 Bapaume. A village which any Australian in these parts a century ago would know. It was a much contested town during the war and it soon appeared before us and we took the exit off the Motorway and  found ourselves treading on the pages of history and in the footsteps of men who had been forced to give too much. We were on the old Western Front.

 Bapaume isn't a particularly exciting little town, in fact it is downright dull and there was a distinctive lack of folk in the streets and apart from the rumble of an occasional semi-trailer which pierced the serenity, it was a quiet place.

 As we wandered around I noticed a plaque on the wall of the town hall, just near the roundabout in the centre of town. It was dedicated to men of the AIF who, whilst billeted in the hall, were killed when a German booby trap exploded in 1918. We were in the right place.

 We found our way to the information centre where two local women seemed to be quietly fiddling away at their work and whilst the younger of the pair, a rather plump young lady with long blonde hair tried her best to understand us due to our lack of knowledge of the French language, her older partner gave a look of disdain as if the presence of yet more tourists looking for ancient war graves was nothing more than a distraction.

 We told the friendlier of the two that we were looking for the village of Grevillers and she soon produced a hand drawn set of directions and we turned to be on our way. It was then that the other woman sparked up.

 Unprompted, she told us she would find us a map which showed us exactly where the cemetery was as it was tricky to find. We hadn't made clear our objectives but it must have been obvious. We looked and sounded liked tourists. Why else would we be off the beaten track in Bapaume?

 She had soon printed out a much better map which showed exactly how to get to Grevillers which was only a few kilometres away but in 1917 would have taken us across No-Man's Land and I appreciated her effort at rousing herself and displaying some empathy for foreigners who had  come from the ends of the earth, just like their forefathers and found themselves in this little village, searching for one of their own.

 Taking the advice of our "Bapaume Angels" we were quickly on our way and easily found Grevillers British Cemetery on the outskirts of the village with the same name with only one wrong turn blighting our advance.

 Set close to the Albert-Amiens road in rolling green farmland the cemetery is one of literally thousands which dot the line of the old Western Front. Every few miles a cluster of marble headstones will appear along the roadside, testament to the sacrifice of millions of Allied servicemen of the great war and a scar on the landscape; a beacon for the folly of ignorant politicians and the arrogance of Generals who did their bidding.

 Grevillers cemetery is beautifully kept as all Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries are. Stark against it's surroundings, clean and bright, crowned by a memorial to the New Zealand Expeditionary Force which recaptured the town after it was lost to the Allies in the last great German offensive of the war in 1918.

 It contains about 400 graves. Kiwis, Brits and Aussies all lie here in geometrically perfect lines with identical headstones laid out with regimental precision.

 German fatalities buried here after the Kaiser's army captured the town were evicted not long after their living comrades were sent packing. Such is the lot of the defeated, dead or alive.

 Of course, for me, Grevillers cemetery is different to the rest for an important reason.For in it lies someone who was once of my flesh and blood.

 Finding the cemetery was a surreal experience. After all the years of searching, the time spent looking at maps and peering at my destination through Google street view, I was finally here. Now I had to find the man I had travelled so far to see.

 Parking at the south-eastern corner, close to where the local farmer was ploughing his field, we entered the cemetery from the rear, close to the Kiwi memorial and a relief plaque dedicated to the history of the Battle of the Somme.

 I rushed back to the car, much to Linda's bewilderment, to retrieve my six-foot Australian flag. It has been to Gallipoli and been carried along the Kokoda Track. I needed it in Grevillers cemetery.

 Row by row we searched, Linda on one side of the cemetery, me on the other. I urged young John to help me find him, to guide me to his last resting place. I think he heard me.

 At the very front of the cemetery, next to the Grevillers road, I finally came across a group of soldiers who had died on the day I was looking for. April 23, 1917. Right in the middle row, five of so plots from the entrance, I found him.

                                                   Lance Corporal John Flinders Robinson

                                                     5th Battalion Australian Imperial Force

                                                                    23rd April 1917

                                                                    Aged 20 years

                                                         His Name Liveth Forever More

 I spread my Australian flag at the base of the headstone and carefully laid a set of replica medals, directly corresponding to those Lance Corporal Robinson would have been awarded posthumously, against the marble.

 Photos were taken. Linda and I shared the moment. My family's duty was fulfilled.

 At the entrance of the cemetery, in it's own little pigeon-hole in the brick facade, is a guest book. There, the names of a regular trickle of visitors is recorded for posterity. The last visitors had preceded us by a few days.

 Linda entered her name on the record and handed the book to me. That is when the enormity of my mission finally weighed me down.

 Overcome by melancholy and the accumulated grief of a family who had lost a son and a life that was cut short before it had reached it's prime, I cried.

 I cried for my Great Uncle and all that he had missed out on by giving his life for "King and Country". I cried for his mates who lay with him and those who lie in other lonely French cemeteries, lost and all but forgotten by their descendants. I cried for those who are known only to God, secure in unmarked graves and for those who still lie in the fields which spread to the horizon all about me, lost forever.

 A plot in a churlish piece of France and a name on a wall in Canberra are all that physically remain of John Flinders Robinson. But in the hearts of those he left behind he remained forever and in the minds of their descendants he will remain forever more.

 Lest we forget.

 That was merely my first day on the Somme The adventure continued and so will my another time.

 Have a great day.

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